The Last Hero of Tiananmen

Philip Pan, for years my favorite correspondent in Beijing (he left a few months ago), has written a devastating article about a letter written by a doctor who saw with his own eyes the victims of the massacre on the streets of Beijing n June 4, 1989 and described in detail the carnage he witnessed in the emergency room that night. [Correction – this is not actually an article but an excerpt of Pan’s new book Out of Mao’s Shadow that I’ve been trying to buy.]

On page after page, over a period of months, Jiang poured his heart into the letter. Every spring, as the anniversary of the massacre approached, the party became nervous and mobilized to prevent any attempt to memorialize the victims. But people had not forgotten, Jiang wrote. They had been bullied into silence, but, with each passing year, their anger and frustration grew. Jiang urged the new leaders to take a new approach. They should admit the party was wrong to send troops into the square and order them to fire on unarmed civilians. They should address the pain of those who lost their loved ones in the massacre and acknowledge, at long last, that the protesters were not “thugs” or “counter-revolutionaries” but patriots calling for a better and more honest government..

As Pan explains, this is no ordinary whistleblower, but one with unique credibility – none other than Jiang Yanyong, the very same doctor who wrote the letter to Time magazine in 2003 blowing the lid off the SARS cover-up. Needless to say, for his efforts to save lives he was “eased into retirement,” and later harassed and detained.

“Haunting” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read the final paragraphs of this beautiful story.

The government never charged Jiang with a crime, and he was finally released from house arrest in March 2005. Afterward, though, he disappeared from public view. When I last visited him, he turned up the volume on his television set because he believed his apartment might be bugged, and he whispered that he was trying to avoid provoking the government. He said he still wanted to visit his daughter and grandson in California, and he believed that, if he behaved, the authorities would give him permission to go. As I listened to him speak, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. The state had been unable to break Jiang, but it had succeeded in silencing him.

After I left his apartment, though, I decided it was unfair to expect the elderly doctor to continue standing up to the party. He had already achieved more than most and paid a price for it. I doubted the government would ever let him visit his daughter and grandson, but how could anyone expect him to give up that hope? There was only so much one man could do, and only so much a nation could ask of him.

There’s much more to this story; I never realized how difficult a life the SARS whistleblower had endured, and how he retained his integrity even through the horrors of the Mao years, and remained dedicated to his country (not the party) to the point of endangering his own safety. It is inspiring, and ultimately very sad. Please read the article, bookmark it and pass it to your friends.

When I read articles like this, I realize how important it is that traditional media don’t die out. There is nothing like great reporting, something Pan has consistently delivered, shocking us with the truths he uncovers and telling them in a dispassionate tone that nevertheless haunts us even years after reading them. The way this story haunts me even today.

John Pomfret set the bar high for Pan, his replacement, and I can’t imagine how the Post will ever find anyone who can fill Pan’s shoes. As good as they come.

The Discussion: 32 Comments

“but, with each passing year, their anger and frustration grew. ”

On the contrary people are forgetting it, or willing to let it slip. CCP has successfully bought off a whole generation, except a few. It’s just so sad. I wish I could see 6.4 vindicated in my life time, but probably not.


July 9, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Comment

Richard, Thank you for the very kind write-up. For readers who are interested, this article is adapted from a more comprehensive chapter about Dr. Jiang in the newly published book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China. The Washington Post recently published an article adapted from another chapter of the book. More information is available at

July 9, 2008 @ 4:26 am | Comment

Why are these topics talked about again? I believe there are already iron clad conclusions on the Tianamen Political Incident, on SARS epidemic. Reintroducing these topics will not add any new perspective to it. What new things do you have to add? Let history be the judge.

July 9, 2008 @ 7:13 am | Comment

Why are these topics talked about again?

One might just as well ask, why do some people want the topic to go away?

July 9, 2008 @ 8:54 am | Comment

I must say that Dr. Jiang is a true hero of the People’s Republic. We will be forever in debt to him.

July 9, 2008 @ 10:26 am | Comment

Not really. I do not know Doctor Jiang, so I will not judge him. But I think this episode simply means that the Chinese government was not very “smooth” in PR and dealing with media, especially western media. Or, you can also say the Chinese government is too honest, too straightforward, and did not yet learn the modern ways of smooth and dealing with media and dealing with such incidents. If this was handled by the more experienced American media, this Doctor Jiang will not become a martyr like this, will not become a symbol for others to attack the government. The lack of skills of PR of the government caused Doctor Jiang to be a martye, and to be used as a tool for attack by opponents. The better way is to be very polite to doctor jiang, but portray him as being incorrect in his professional opinion, or have some personal history with the government so that he wants revenge, or associated with the West (do not need to accuse him of this charge directrly, just suggest, or hint, and create a doubt about it in people’s mind). Gradually, his words will have low credibility, and his movites and his personal history will be qustioned by people, and he will not be a threat any more. This is the more artful way to deal with opponents.

July 9, 2008 @ 10:37 am | Comment

Great article – thanks for the link, Richard. Thanks too to Philip Pan, of course.

HX – be honest. You’re a party member under instruction to deflect and deny discussion of issues that the party wants swept under the carpet; and The Peking Duck is one of the blogs on your ‘watch’. Right?

Take a closer look at the past events the CCP chooses to remember ad nauseam, then come back with the same nonsense argument you just made.

July 9, 2008 @ 10:55 am | Comment

Incredible story, well told.

Richard, the link to the earlier article (about the crackdown on the Beijing students group)no longer works. Do you think you might still have a working link to that article from WaPo?

July 9, 2008 @ 10:57 am | Comment

Shijjieren, thanks for pointing out that the WaPo story isn’t there any more, which is really a pity because it was one of the best-researched case studies in oppression I’ve ever read. It seems to be completely gone – I can’t get it at the Post’s web site or anywhere else Google can look.

HongXing, the story isn’t about SARS or TSM “again,” it’s the story of the doctor, who you, no doubt, would see as a traitor.

July 9, 2008 @ 11:12 am | Comment

The more people like Dr. Jiang we have, the more likely that CCP will revisit the Tiananmen incident. Sometime in the future the party will issue a new verdict, very much like what they did about the Cultural Revolution when Deng came to power. CCP is quite capable of adapting to new environment. If KMT can change and evolve, there is no reason to think that CCP can not become a democratic institution. After all these two parties came out of the same intellectual tradition.

July 9, 2008 @ 11:17 am | Comment

HX: Or, you can also say the Chinese government is too honest, too straightforward, and did not yet learn the modern ways of smooth and dealing with media and dealing with such incidents.


July 9, 2008 @ 11:17 am | Comment

Snork. Yeah. You COULD say that. You COULD say a lot of things. Like, I dunno, the Great Leap Forward was a model of successful socialist modernization.

July 9, 2008 @ 11:37 am | Comment

[…] Peking Duck has again unearthed a must-read article: […]

July 9, 2008 @ 1:59 pm | Pingback

While I can appreciate the man’s Tiananmen Square letter, I am not fully convinced there was a SARS cover-up so much as just not making a big deal about “the potential deadly epidemic”. The needless panic caused by irresponsible journalists was absolutely ridiculous.The survival rate for people that actually caught the disease was 91 percent. Hardly a “killer” disease when you consider more than 11,000 people per year die from flu. On the other hand,it was a pleasant time. Hardly any people on the streets,loads of empty seats on trains,buses,etc.

July 9, 2008 @ 5:50 pm | Comment


“The survival rate for people that actually caught the disease was 91 percent. Hardly a “killer” disease when you consider more than 11,000 people per year die from flu.”

Um, LL how many people catch flu each year? Quite a few, right? And do 9% of those who get it die? Not sure that they do. Presumably you’ll be telling the relatives of those that died unnecessarily because the CCP covered up the spread of the disease from Hong Kong to Beijing about the pleasant time you had. They might of course tell a different story, perhaps one about how people became hysterical because of the cover up and not knowing how far it had spread and not being able to trust the government’s information. Perhaps a story about watching their loved ones die and being worried about catching it and passing it on to others.

But this wouldn’t concern you right? Because it didn’t happen to you and you had a jolly old time. So bollocks to them

July 9, 2008 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

Whether SARS was a killer disease isn’t the issue – it was the government’s willingness to lie about it, telling the WHO blatant untruths, and even to hide SARS patients in ambulances running around the city so the WHO wouldn’t find them. I’m glad you enjoyed it, LL. Hundreds of people died of a disease the parameters of which we didn’t understand. Make light of it if you want. I was here then, too, and I didn’t find it that amusing, especially when someone in my office building died of SARS.

July 9, 2008 @ 8:19 pm | Comment

Si: Do you really believe I didn’t take into account that some fake bleeding heart was going to take my comment out of context and try to guilt trip me with “What about the loved ones that died?” Nowhere did I trivialize the deaths of anybody’s family members. I merely put into persperctive that it was not the killer epidemic the media was trying to portray. I didn’t buy into all the hype. Excuse me for not coming down with Survivor’s Guilt.

July 9, 2008 @ 8:26 pm | Comment


Liked the way you avoided my central points:

1. 9% death rate is for you not a dangerous disease. Good for you – I presume you’d be happy to play that sort of russian roulette with your life. I take it you don’t have any innoculations – after all you probably wouldn’t die from polio or the measles would you?
2. The media played up the problem certainly, but this was in large part due a lack of information caused by the CCP
3. You didn’t trivalise it? You sounded pretty blase – it was a pleasant time etc etc.
4. “Do you really believe I didn’t take into account that some fake bleeding heart was going to take my comment out of context and try to guilt trip me with “What about the loved ones that died?”” Pity you didn’t address this in your original comment nor did you consider that people reading this might have been affected. You call me a fake bleeding heart (love the ad hominem) – for all you know someone I know might have died. Did you think about that?

July 9, 2008 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

Let’s drop this argument, ok. It’s not what I wanted this thread to be about.

July 10, 2008 @ 9:42 am | Comment

Was he promised a Green Card?
Has he been issued one yet?
If not….why not?
Get him one as promised obviously and let him vamoose.

July 10, 2008 @ 10:41 am | Comment

That’s amazing and moving Richard. Thanks for posting it.


July 10, 2008 @ 10:54 am | Comment

great post

HX- you are drinking the Kool Aid aren’t you?

July 10, 2008 @ 3:30 pm | Comment


Sorry! Anyway great post. Perhaps one day the CCP will be embarrassed into acting like adults.

July 10, 2008 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

I too apologize to Richard for deviating from the topic. And to Si,although I don’t feel compelled to offer an apology I will say that I always thought your comments were reasonable in the past and so I was a bit disappointed with the snippiness. These are my first comments here and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I hope if there are any future disagreements,we can also act like adults.

July 10, 2008 @ 8:35 pm | Comment

Fair enough. I do have certain triggers for snippiness, but then I think so does everyone at some level.

July 10, 2008 @ 10:15 pm | Comment

There’s a full translation of Jiang Yanyong’s letter here (proxy needed in China) or here (no proxy needed).

July 11, 2008 @ 12:46 am | Comment

Interesting essay on Chinese censorship at the Chinese Media Project’s website. The essay is entitled “Garden of Falsehood” and can be downloaded as a pdf. To those who are interested, the link is:

July 11, 2008 @ 3:38 am | Comment

Wow talk about beating a dead horse.


If you took any Public health related education they you’d know that SARS was just a drop in the bucket as far as Standardized Mortality rate goes in relation to population. Its rate of infection fluctuates in cycles and SARS can easily be contained(re:vancouver costal health).

Basically it was much more of a media scare and blown out of proportions due to the emergence of a previously unknown disease.

July 11, 2008 @ 3:41 am | Comment

Regarding mortality rate for SARS, 9% is almost certainly higher than what it was in reality. It’s a textbook case of sample bias wherein those who are found to have been infected were those who were showing the severest symptoms. All things considered many many more people were infected that probably only showed mild symptoms, especially considering the population density of Guangdong, the vector.

At the time I remember my parents were making a big deal about SARS but no one realizes that the common Flu kills more people in a single day that a years worth of SARS.

July 11, 2008 @ 8:37 am | Comment

There is a grain of truth to the argument that SARS was a “media scare” but only a grain. If the epidemic was “blown out of proportions,” that is because the government tried to hide it. When the government is lying, journalists find it difficult to just sit back and accept assertions that a fast-spreading virus has a low mortality rate or isn’t a big deal. The lack of information amplified fear — and that resulted in the scrutiny by the media.

Interestingly, Jiang Yanyong stated very clearly that he believed the virus was NOT terribly threatening, that it COULD be contained — but only if the government acted openly and aggressively to do so. If it did not — and it did not at first — Dr. Jiang believed the disease could spread very quickly and the global death toll could be significant.

I think events proved the doctor correct. After he exposed the cover-up, the government snapped into action and defeated SARS easily. It did so, in part, by launching a propaganda campaign to inform the public about the disease through the state media. One might call that “blowing it out proportions” but one might also call it good governance and a basic public health strategy.

July 11, 2008 @ 8:52 am | Comment

The panic over SARS was completely understandable. It was new and it was a mystery. Very few people have died of mad cow disease or the ebola virus. However, they create fear and confusion because they are relatively new phenomena, at least for most of the general public, and they are not well understood and there is no cure. The perfect ingredients for a panic. For the first few months, SARS, too, was all of those things. Brand new, undefined, not understood, patients failed to respond to traditional treatment and there was a relatively high concentration in specific geographies, where people were actually dying. Maybe not a lot of people by some of our standards, but certainly enough to trigger alarm. Add to that a media/government coverup, which raised all kinds of questions (why are they lying? what do they know that we don’t? how can we learn the real truth?). A perfect storm.

Again, this thread is not about whether SARS was as serious a threat as some perceived it. It is about someone taking a big risk to get the truth out about a government cover-up and to tell the world that lives were at stake. Maybe not thousands or millions, but at that point, SARS was still not understood, and to hide the fact that people were being infected was criminal. It’s easy now to sit back and say it was no big deal. But as I said, someone in my own office building died of SARS and to those of us working in that building it was a very big deal.

Jiang is a genuine hero. To diminish his courage and love of his people by saying SARS was really no big deal is a cheap shot and also a bad argument.

July 11, 2008 @ 10:29 am | Comment

[…] an earlier post I referenced an article from 2004 that I found one of the most disturbing ever, but unfortunately […]

July 16, 2008 @ 2:55 pm | Pingback

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